Cotillion, p.34
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       Cotillion, p.34

           Georgette Heyer

  ‘I feel sure you are mistaken.’

  ‘No, no, I know you could do it, if you would! What in the world has made you so cross? What is it that has been happening at Arnside?’

  ‘So you don’t know! Then let me inform you, my love, that while you have been cutting capers in town, your dear Fish has entrapped my great-uncle into offering to bestow upon her his hand, and his not inconsiderable fortune!’

  ‘What?’ almost shrieked Kitty. ‘Uncle Matthew marry Fish? You must be mad!’

  ‘Whoever else is mad, it is certainly not I!’ he replied. He looked at the Rector with narrowing eyes. ‘I observe, coz, that these tidings do not come as a surprise to you!’

  ‘No. They do not,’ said the Rector coldly. ‘I have been aware for some weeks of my uncle’s intentions. I may add I have also been admitted into Miss Fishguard’s confidence.’

  ‘Have you indeed? It did not occur to you, I must assume, to warn either Kitty or me of what was looming before us?’

  A slight, contemptuous smile curled the Rector’s lips. ‘You are correct in your assumption,’ he said. ‘It does not appear to me that my uncle’s schemes are any concern of yours, my dear cousin!’

  ‘But, good God, how has this come about?’ cried Kitty. ‘Uncle Matthew and my poor Fish! Why, she goes in terror of him, while as for him, whenever his gout troubles him it is fatal for her to enter his room! Surely you are mistaken!’

  ‘Oh, no, I am not mistaken!’ he replied grimly. ‘My uncle did me the honour to write to me, informing me of his purpose. I am but just come from Arnside. My only mistake has been in thinking that my saintly cousin might, for once in his life, allow his common-sense a little rein!’

  His cousin was goaded into making a very unsaintly retort. ‘Not quite your only mistake, I fancy!’

  For an instant Mr Westruther looked quite murderous; then he uttered a short laugh, and said: ‘As you say!’

  Kitty, who had been staring at him in blank astonishment, suddenly exclaimed: ‘Can that have been why Fish begged me to return? And yet—Jack, how is this possible?’

  ‘You, my dear Kitty, made it possible when you so unwisely left Arnside. So far as I am privileged to understand the matter, the Fish has been busy! She has learnt to play chess so that he may beat her every night; she has prevailed upon him to believe that the pangs of his gout have been alleviated by some antiquated remedy of her finding rather than by the clemency of the weather; and finally she has instilled into his mind the famous notion that since it will not suit his comfort to dispense with her services it will cost him less to marry her than to continue to pay her a wage!’

  Kitty turned her eyes towards Hugh, in a mute question. He said gravely: ‘I cannot deny that I believe my uncle to be influenced by motives of economy.’

  ‘But Fish—! Can it be that she will consent? When I recall her dismay, upon learning that I was going on a visit to London, I cannot believe it!’

  ‘Very true, but you must recollect, my dear Kitty, that Miss Fishguard’s future, were she to leave Arnside, cannot be other than precarious. Moreover, since you went away, and she has been obliged to fill your place in the household, she has discovered, in some measure, how to make herself agreeable to him. Indeed, I have seldom known him to be in more amiable spirits!’

  ‘Very adroitly has she discovered how to make herself agreeable!’ struck in Mr Westruther. ‘We have underrated her, my dear Hugh—let us own as much! Has she bamboozled you with her tears, and her vapours, and her protestations? What a bleater you must be!’

  ‘Then that must have been what she meant by treachery!’ exclaimed Kitty, unheeding. ‘How foolish of her! As though I could think such a thing of her! If she does indeed wish to marry Uncle Matthew, it is an excellent scheme!’

  ‘I hope you may think as much when you find yourself cut out of my uncle’s Will by a brat in her image!’ said Mr Westruther viciously.

  ‘An unlikely contingency!’ said the Rector.

  ‘On the contrary, nothing could be more likely! My uncle is not in his dotage, as well we know; and if the Fish is much above forty, I have been strangely misinformed!’

  Kitty could not repress a giggle. ‘Oh, dear, how ridiculous it would be! I must go to Arnside as soon as I may.’

  ‘Let that be immediately!’ said Mr Westruther.

  ‘It cannot be immediately, Jack! I told you that we were all in an uproar here! I have been so stupid, and if poor Dolph’s plans are overset through it I shall never, never forgive myself!’

  ‘That ain’t so,’ interrupted Miss Plymstock, who had been engaged in quietly explaining to Lord Dolphinton the meaning of a dialogue that was rather too swift for him to follow. ‘It’s my blame, Miss Charing, and don’t you think I shall be trying to lay it at your door, for that I shall never do!’

  ‘Oh, Jack!’ said Kitty distressfully. ‘Never mind about Uncle Matthew for a moment! I brought Dolph and Miss Plymstock here, so that Hugh might marry them, and I was such a goose that I forgot—at least, I never knew, and that is stupider than anything! Hugh says they must have a special licence, and they have not got one!’

  ‘In that case,’ said Mr Westruther, ‘you have wasted your time. May I suggest that you waste no more time, but that you turn your mind instead to—’

  ‘Jack, if they must have a licence, could not you get it for them? Are such things to be procured in London? Do they, perhaps, cost a great deal of money?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Mr Westruther, ‘they do, my dear Kitty! And if you are indulging your imagination with the notion that I mean to drive to London and back for no better purpose than to provide Dolphinton, in whose affairs I take not the smallest interest, with a marriage-licence, you very much mistake your man!’

  She laid a hand on his sleeve. ‘No, no, Jack, you cannot be so disobliging!’ she said pleadingly. ‘It is vital to Dolph’s happiness!’

  He looked down at her, a mocking smile in his eyes. ‘I am quite unmoved, Kitty. Show me that it is vital to my happiness, and I might oblige you!’

  She stared up in this face with puckered brows. ‘To yours? What can you mean?’

  He lifted her hand from his arm, and held it. ‘My dear Kitty, let us have done! Between us, we might, I fancy, induce my uncle to change his mind.’

  An indignant flush rose to her cheeks; she pulled her hand away, saying hotly: ‘I don’t wish him to change his mind! I hope very much that he will marry Fish!’

  His brows snapped together. ‘A sentiment that no doubt does credit to your heart, but very little to your head, believe me!’ He broke off, as Lord Dolphinton, uttering a strangled sound, almost leaped from his chair. ‘What the devil ails that lunatic?’ he demanded irritably.

  ‘Listen!’ gasped his lordship, fixing dilating eyes upon the window.

  The rest of the company now became aware that some vehicle had drawn up outside the Rectory. Kitty ran to the window, and peered out. It was by this time too dark for her to be able to distinguish any object, but she could perceive the glow of carriage-lamps beyond the hedge, and could distinctly hear the fidgeting and blowing of horses. She said uneasily: ‘It sounds as though there are more than two horses. But it could not be your Mama, Dolph!’

  Lord Dolphinton, feeling no such certainty, made a bolt for the cupboard, but was intercepted by the Rector, who took his arm in a firm grip, and said in a voice of authority: ‘Foster, I will not suffer you to behave in this nonsensical fashion! Now, calm yourself! In this house, you are perfectly safe, whoever may have come to visit me. For shame! Do you mean to leave Miss—er—Plymstock to face what you imagine to be a danger!’

  ‘Both go into the cupboard!’ suggested his lordship imploringly.

  ‘Certainly not! You will protect Miss Plymstock,’ said Hugh.

  Rather to Kitty’s surprise, these stern words appeared to inspire Dolphinton with courage. He
gulped, but made no further attempt to reach his refuge. The sound of the knocker on the front-door did indeed make him jump, and shudder, but he said resolutely: ‘Protect Hannah!’ and stood his ground.

  Mr Westruther drew his snuff-box from his pocket, and flicked it open. ‘If someone would have the goodness to inform me whether I am assisting at a tragedy or a farce I should be grateful,’ he said sardonically.

  The housekeeper’s unmistakeable tread was heard, followed by the sound of a lifting latch. Lord Dolphinton acquired a firm hold on Miss Plymstock’s hand, and swallowed convulsively.

  ‘Affording protection, or seeking it?’ drawled Mr Westruther, taking a pinch of snuff from his box, and expertly shaking all but a grain or two from between his finger and thumb.

  The door into the parlour was opened. ‘Mr Standen, sir,’ announced Mrs Armathwaite placidly.

  Surprise held the company silent for perhaps thirty seconds. Mr Standen, not a hair out of place, walked into the room, found that five pairs of eyes were staring at him in astonishment, and said apologetically: ‘Thought you might be needing me! No wish to intrude!’

  Kitty found her voice. ‘Freddy!’ she cried thankfully, hurrying towards him. ‘Oh, how glad I am to see you! We are in such a dreadful fix, and I don’t know what to do!’

  ‘Thought very likely you would be,’ said Freddy. ‘Not sure, mind you, but I’d a strong notion you’d forgot to buy the special licence.’

  Kitty caught his hand. ‘Freddy, you have not brought one?’ she demanded incredulously.

  ‘Yes, I have,’ he replied. ‘That’s why I came.’

  For the second time in her life, Miss Charing lifted his hand to her cheek. ‘Oh, Freddy, I might have known you would come to our rescue!’ she said, in a choked voice.

  Mr Westruther, who had been watching them with an odd expression on his face, shut his snuff-box with a snap. As though this sharp little sound released him from a spell which kept him standing with his eyes starting from their sockets and his mouth falling open, Lord Dolphinton suddenly released Miss Plymstock, and surged forward, saying, with gratifying delight, if somewhat unnecessarily: ‘It’s Freddy! Hannah, it’s Freddy! My cousin Freddy!’ He then seized Freddy’s hand, and shook it up and down, beaming upon him, and pawing his shoulder with his free hand. ‘I’m glad you’ve come, Freddy!’ he said earnestly, in a burst of confidence: ‘I like you. Like you better than Hugh. Better—’

  ‘That’s the dandy, old fellow!’ said Freddy, stemming the flow. ‘No need to stroke me, though. Now, stop it, Dolph, for the lord’s sake!’

  He managed to disengage himself, but Lord Dolphinton had not reached the end of his disclosures. ‘When Jack came, I wasn’t glad,’ he said. ‘Sorry. Because I don’t like him. I’ll tell you something, Freddy: Hugh wouldn’t let me get in the cupboard, and I’m glad of that too.’

  Mr Standen, who had long since ceased to feel surprise at anything his eccentric relative might say or do, thrust him gently into a chair, and said amiably: ‘Of course you are. No need to sit in the cupboard on my account. If it’s your mother you’re worrying about, no need to do that either: she ain’t coming here.’

  ‘You know that, Freddy?’ said his lordship.

  ‘Lord, yes! Gone to a party—thinks you’re at Arnside!’ said Freddy, improvising cleverly.

  Lord Dolphinton, on whom the repeated assurances of Miss Charing and Miss Plymstock had made no impression at all, appeared to accept this. He turned to relay the information to Miss Plymstock; and Freddy was at liberty to turn his attention to his betrothed, who was tugging at his coat in a way which drew a protest from him.

  ‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ Kitty said. ‘But how in the world did you guess that I had forgot the licence?’

  Mr Standen rubbed his nose reflectively. ‘Struck me when Meg gave me your letter. What I mean is, told me everything else, but didn’t say a word about the licence. What’s more, knew dashed well you hadn’t enough money to purchase it, and had a strong notion Dolph hadn’t either. Meant to have been there with it sooner, but the thing was I got detained. Had to buy the Broughty girl a toothbrush.’

  ‘Had to do what?’ exclaimed Kitty.

  ‘Dash it, Kit, couldn’t let her go to France without one! Must see that!’ expostulated Freddy. ‘Not the thing at all! Bought her a hairbrush and comb as well. Meg saw to the rest, but if ever there was a hen-witted female it’s Meg!’

  ‘Freddy, are you telling me Olivia has gone to France?’ demanded Kitty, dazed.

  ‘Gone to Dover,’ corrected Freddy. ‘Boarding the packet tomorrow.’

  Mr Westruther, regarding him out of narrowed eyes, said silkily: ‘You have been busy, coz, have you not?’

  ‘I should dashed well think I have!’ said Freddy, stirred by the memory of his activities.

  ‘You have—you will agree!—a trifle of explaining to do!’

  ‘Not to you, Jack!’ said Freddy, meeting his eyes fair and square.

  The Rector, a silent and puzzled auditor, at this point moved a pace forward, but it was Kitty who intervened. ‘Good God! Freddy, she has not eloped with Camille?’

  ‘That’s it,’ said Mr Standen, pleased to find her of such a ready understanding. ‘Best thing she could do. Saw it in a flash. Thing was, Gosford offered for her—poor girl cast into despair—came to find you—found me instead! Left her with Meg, and went off to your cousin’s lodgings. Silly fellow flew into his high ropes: never met such a gabster in my life! Give you my word, Kit, he enacted me a whole Cheltenham tragedy! However, contrived to settle it all right and tight in the end. Saw ’em off from the Golden Cross, told the hack to take me to Doctors’ Commons, got the licence, and posted down here as soon as I could. Here, Hugh! You’d better take the thing!’

  With these words, he handed over a folded document to his cousin. Hugh took it, but before he could say anything, Kitty exclaimed: ‘But, Freddy, an elopement! Have you considered—I own, the thought did not occur to me until quite recently!—that Camille must be a Catholic?’

  It was plain that Mr Standen had not considered this possibility. He once more rubbed the tip of his nose, but said philosophically, after a moment’s reflection: ‘Oh, well, no sense in teasing ourselves over a trifle! If he is, she’ll have to change! Shouldn’t think she’d object: seems a very biddable girl!’

  Kitty drew a breath. ‘Then—then everything is settled! At least, it will be, when Dolph and Hannah are married, and there can be no difficulty about that, now that you have brought them that stupid licence! Oh, Freddy, it is all your doing!’

  ‘No, no!’ said Freddy, embarrassed.

  ‘Yes, indeed it is! For although it was I who wanted Olivia to marry Camille, I should never have thought of telling him to carry her off to France; and you see what sad work I made of poor Dolph’s elopement! I am so very grateful to you! Oh, and Jack says that Uncle Matthew is going to marry Fish, and that is a very good thing too, though, to be sure, it was none of our doing!’

  ‘Is he, though?’ said Freddy, mildly interested. ‘Well, I daresay it don’t matter, because he’s a deuced rum ’un himself, but that Fish of yours is queer in her attic.’

  ‘Freddy, she is not!’

  ‘Must be. Dash it, wouldn’t write to you about Henry VIII if she wasn’t! Stands to reason.’

  ‘You are mistaken, coz,’ interrupted Mr Westruther, in a brittle voice. ‘The Fish is cleverer than we knew. I have not the slightest desire to dwell upon all she saw fit to pour into my ears not an hour since, for I found it nauseating, but if the matter teases you, you may as well know that she believes herself to be comparable to Katherine Parr—tending the aged and irascible monarch!’ he added sarcastically.

  ‘So that was it!’ exclaimed Kitty. ‘Of course! He had a bad leg too! Though I fancy it was not precisely gout that afflicted him, was it? Now I see it all! How very like Fish to be so absu
rd! If only Uncle Matthew has not bullied her into saying she will marry him, I must say I think it an excellent thing for them both, don’t you, Freddy?’

  ‘Well, Freddy?’ said Mr Westruther. ‘Do you think it excellent, or does some grain of common-sense exist in your mind?’

  ‘Not my affair,’ said Freddy. ‘At least—come to think of it, not sure it isn’t, in which case I do think it’s an excellent thing. What I mean is, I don’t want that woman living with us, and if she marries my great-uncle she dashed well can’t!’

  Miss Charing’s cheeks became flooded with colour. ‘But, F-Freddy—!’ she faltered.

  Mr Westruther laughed. ‘Just so, my love! You have been so busily employed in making what I can only call infelicitous matches that you have left your own future out of account, have you not? Oh, don’t look so conscious! I imagine Hugh cannot be so wood-headed that he does not know very well what game you have been playing! Dolphinton, I am sure, we need not regard; and as for Miss Plymstock, I look upon her as quite one of the family! It has been an amusing game, my little one, and you must not think that I blame you for having played it. It was very unhandsome of me not to have come to Arnside that day, was it not?’

  He moved towards her as he spoke; his eyes were laughing again; and he held out his hands. The Rector cast a glance at Mr Standen, but Mr Standen had discovered an infinitesimal speck of fluff adhering to his coat sleeve, and was engaged in removing it. It was a task that appeared to absorb his whole attention.

  Miss Charing took a step backward. ‘If you please, Jack,’ she said, rather breathlessly, ‘no more!’

  ‘Oh, nonsense, Kitty, nonsense!’ Mr Westruther said impatiently. ‘This folly has gone far enough!’

  Miss Charing swallowed, and managed to say; ‘I collect that you mean to ask me to marry you, but—but I beg you will not! If you had come—that day—I should have accepted your offer, which would have been a very great mistake, and makes me so deeply thankful now that you did not come! Pray, Jack, say no more!’

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